Commentary

Ulster: A British Experience in Counterinsurgency

in Program

By Geneve Mantri – Last month with little fanfare, the British Army officially ended its 38-year involvement in Northern Ireland.  While Ulster cannot be compared in most respects to  acute challenges of Iraq, there are some interesting issues in their own right which highlight some of the problems and opportunities democratic governments have in addressing counterinsurgencies.  

The roots of the Ulster problem go back to 1921 and the partition of the island of Ireland.  The 6 counties in the north – predominantly Protestant, remained a part of the United Kingdom with a devolved parliament situated in Belfast. The other 26 counties later became the Irish Republic. The fledgling Irish Republican Army (IRA) of the 40s and 50s was committed to the reunification of Ireland. They represented a nuisance to the UK government, not a threat.  As the curtain fell on the British empire – sometimes violently, Ulster was a quiet backwater posting for the British Army.

Underlying this ‘idyllic’ façade were issues of fundamental religious, economic, and social discrimination against the minority Catholic population.   Systemic discrimination in housing, social services, and employment were the norm.

The “Troubles” – as the conflict is known, seemed to come from nowhere.   After World War II, a social revolution was taking place, with the introduction of the welfare state, expansion of education and rising social mobility.  Such dramatic changes also had their impact on Northern Ireland.  Large groups of previously marginalised young people began to organize, demonstrate and demand their rights, galvinized by social and civil rights movements across the world.   

The British Army entered the fray in 1969, with some experience in counterinsurgencies as Britain pulled out of Palestine, Kenya, Malaya, Borneo, Aden and Cyprus. Some were handled with aplomb and great success, while others reflected a myopic big stick approach, with little social and religious sensitivity.  Unfortunately, it was the latter approach that the UK brought to Ulster.  Within months of being introduced and welcomed onto the streets of Belfast to protect Catholics from bigoted Protestant mobs, British troops were being stoned by the very people they were originally sent to protect.   

What followed was increasing violence and the use of heavy-handed tactics, from internment without trial, to random sweeps of largely Catholic areas.  These actions  seemed to produce little intelligence and only served to alienate the population and dramatically increase support for the IRA.  The new generation of IRA leaders such as Gerry Adams, welcomed, aided, and abetted the violent crackdrowns.  The  IRA  offered Catholic areas “protection” and benefited from the UK tactics which radicalized the Catholic population.  The violence alienated moderates on all sides,  creating a dynamic of terrorism, fear and greater support for radical groups.  

Despite the gloomy outlook, the problem was finite and mostly stable. As one British General commanding troops in Northern Ireland noted, society continued to function: mail was delivered, trash was collected, children went to school and electrity and water flowed. The IRA and other sectarian groups never challenged the basic existance of the state.

On the UK side, security forces learned and adapted their tactics. The heavy commitment of troops was seen as a liability, but a necessary one.  Gradually the presence was “normalized”.  Big sweeps were ended, troops were encouraged to maintain a lower, less hostile profile.  Contacts were maintained with civil society groups to limit the likelihood of innocents being targeted.  A law enforcement approach was taken to tackle the violence and the Royal Ulster Constabulary – the police, became the defacto frontline force in the war against the paramilitaries.  Throughout this period, the UK government tried secretly to talk to the IRA and paramilitaries  –  which Westminster always denied. At a local level UK force commanders talked to the IRA, and senior Conservative government ministers met with leaders from the IRA, including Martin McGuiness, as early as July 1972.  

For all the cliches of soft berets and softly-softly policing, a brutal intelligence war was waged against the IRA and Protestant paramilitaries.  A highly effective ‘shadow war’ was fought to infiltrate the IRA at all levels.  Good information was produced not by torture, but by routine surveilance, the cultivation of agents and imagination in a sea of moral ambiguities. The result was a military stalemate, which contained the problem.  A small cadre of a couple of hundred active IRA members remained a costly thorn in Britain’s side, but at a politically acceptable level.

Some strategic events broke the stalemate.  The first was success at the ballot box. When IRA prisoners went on hunger strike in British jails for political recognition, it created an international uproar.  But the Thatcher government was implacable.  The posthumous election of Bobby Sands to Parliament undercut the rationale for the IRA – that Republicans were forced to rely on armed struggle because of the rigged political system.  A new strategy of the Armalite(M16) and the ballot box was developed .  As the process began to yield dividends, the pressure to participate helped to build support among Republicans for Sinn Fein ( the political wing of the IRA).

A regional diplomatic breakthrough between the UK government and the Republic of Ireland united the two governments north and south of the border in the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985.  It was the first of many steps which removed sanctuary for the IRA and also offered a viable framework to develop a political solution.  It offered security cooperation, but it was also a step towards changing the fundamental political dynamic of the conflict.  Over time it served to reduce tensions, remove regional impediments to a peaceful solution, and sideline extreme groups.

The emergence of credible leaders and a generational shift created opportunities.  Gerry Adams helped to promote and nurture the idea of a valid political track and worked within the Republican movement to move away from armed struggle. Just as a generational wave had spurred the violence, a generational wave saw the tide turn.  As Adams and IRA leaders such as McGuiness reached middle age, they were eager that their children not grow up with a lifetime of violence ahead of them.  The same was true of UK leaders such as John Major and Tony Blair, who were able to step back from the positions of their predecessors and saw the continuing conflict as an unacceptable anachronism.  Taking small, very difficult political steps, individual Republicans, local politicians, government ministers and mediators began to reach out to each other.  

The use of concerned third parties also played an important part.  Although the US role was often controversial because its people were a source of funding for IRA weapons, the US government played a useful role in bringing Adams into political respectability and then applying pressure to keep him there.  In retrospect, Adams and his allies had few cards to play and limited support within Northern Ireland, but were often aided by selective and responsible support from outside the region.  The wider political trends of the European Union also undercut the conflict.  For generations, Ireland had been the poor rural cousin of the United Kingdom, with its vast subsidies and economic ties to bolster Ulster.  With EU support, the economy of Ireland was transformed into the ‘celtic tiger’ and the wider pressures of European political integration, single markets and common currencies increasingly reset the stage for development north and south.

In retrospect the path to peace in Ulster looks relatively simple: a contained conflict in a geographically limited area within a culturally similar context.  But in its own time it was seen in the same vein as Israel-Palestine, as a conflict that defied rational answers.  It took considerable time, commitment, political vision, and determination to help support a viable political solution.  


Geneve Mantri is a Congressional Fellow with the Security for a New Century Study Group at the Stimson Center.

Share on twitter
Share on facebook
Share on linkedin
Share on email
Choose Your Subscription Topics
* indicates required
I'm interested in...
38 North: News and Analysis on North Korea
South Asian Voices